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Mystery Coronavirus from China: What to Know

WebMD – Jan. 22, 2020 – The public should be paying attention, but not panicking about a new virus that has recently spread from Wuhan, China, to several other countries, including the U.S., public health experts say. The virus, known as a coronavirus, has now reportedly killed 17 and sickened 584, including a man in Washington state -- though it is likely to have infected many more. Fears over its spread led Chinese officials to announce that they will temporarily shut down public transportation out of the city of 11 million people, starting Jan. 23. They are putting similar restrictions on several smaller cities outside of Wuhan as well.

The WHO Thursday voted not to declare the virus a “public health emergency of international concern.” The vast majority of the cases are still concentrated in China, WHO officials said, and there is no evidence of spread in any other countries where it's been diagnosed.

“I think we should be a little concerned, but not overly so,” says Jim Le Duc, PhD, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch. The warning flags, he says, are the virus’s ability to kill, the fact that it can be transmitted from person to person, and its newness -- meaning no one has had time to build up immunity.

It has also arrived during flu season, when there are lots of other respiratory viruses that could make it hard to identify, and just before the Chinese Lunar New Year, when many people will be traveling to celebrate with their families and could spread the disease, he says. U.S. officials will force all travelers from that part of China to come in through certain airports and be screened for symptoms of the disease.

There are still many questions about the new virus, such as where it came from, how it passed to people (it is usually found in mammals), whether people can be contagious without showing signs of the disease, and how best to treat it, says W. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

WebMD interviewed a half-dozen infectious disease experts and also took part in conferences by the CDC and WHO to understand what we know so far about the new virus.

What is a coronavirus?

The virus belongs to the same family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold, but also severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. In 2002-2003, a SARS epidemic sickened more than 8,000 people worldwide -- particularly in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Canada -- and killed about 10% of its victims.

The main difference between the two outbreaks, Le Duc and others say, is that the Chinese government is being far more collegial and open about the Wuhan coronavirus now than it was about SARS. The government has been releasing updated figures about the number of those sickened and last week released a genetic sequence of the new virus, allowing scientists around the world to study it.

“We’re certainly not out of the woods. There’s lots of reasons to be concerned,” Le Duc says, “But we’re not being blindsided as we were previously.”

Roughly one-quarter of those reported illnesses are considered severe, the WHO reported. Because some patients are still quite ill and could die, and because it is not yet clear how many people might have mild cases of the disease, it is not yet possible to know the virus’ death rate. SARS killed roughly 10 percent of its victims, and MERS about one-third, WHO figures show.

Of the 17 people who have died during the current outbreak, most had underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease, said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.


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Image: "Novel Coronavirus nCoV" by AJC1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


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